So, I did something 'a little wacky' - or as my fiance refers to it, childish. I think it's an important, if overstated, attempt at what I've been trying to do for a long time. Enough preamble.
I went to Walgreens and bought a package of 15 'Hello, my name is' tags. I scratched the 'my name is' and underneath wrote 'I am an' and in the space for the name in bolded letters: 'Atheist'.
I should explain why I'm doing this:
1a. to gauge reactions and interpret changes in demeanor and behavior from clerks, servers, and passersby
1b. this is not to 'invite conversation'...people's crosses don't invite conversation...people's pagan or political insignia's don't invite conversation, and so some labeling of myself as the carrier of a belief shouldn't either...I've even mentioned to some at work who ask about it that I'm not interested in a conversation on it, it's merely a labeling exercise.
2. to 'come out' - I've been a known atheist with my family since I was 16 or before (my immediate family since about 3mo before my Confirmation), and most people at work have lain, baited, set, and fallen victim to their own theological traps by engaging in debate with me. But people on the street still, for the most part, aren't aware that atheists are common - or that I'm one
3. as a 'rally flag' - I figure (2) applies to a lot of other atheists (hell....I read the boards), so if I stick a flag in the air, there's a better chance someone on the same team will see it and come to rally
As a disclaimer, I'm doing this in Chicago, a fairly secular city with a strong artists community, so people are used to wacky things. And I'll be honest, the response is not what I thought it would be. I've been conducting this exercise for 2 business-days and 2 weekend-days, thus far and, since there are 15 nametags, 2 weeks would be a good span, I figured. I should also mention, I did this same thing out of hubris in high school, to a much more violent response (I actually got into a fist-fight that I was blamed for...the school's security camera's vindicated me in the ensuing 'disciplinary hearing', which could be equated more to an inquisition).
So, besides familial responses (I'm not counting those), I've only gotten a few verbal responses:
FREQ - RESPONSE - COUNTER
2x - "Well good for you" - none warranted
3x - "I'm sorry to hear that" - "don't be"
?x - a glare - dead-eye stare
10x - a constant stare - eye-contact and then away
5x - a positive approach - I'll explain
2x - "No you're not!!!" - "Yes I am!!!" (wash, rinse, repeat)
6x - some warning about the dangers - admission and acceptance...I'm a man of principle, after all
I want to, at this point, address the 'positive approaches' people have made to me with this. I've had three people thus far, after drawing attention to the sticker with some joke, go on to say "I'm agnostic myself. Maybe I just don't get all the big deal. Some people believe some things, some people believe others, but I don't buy much of any of it." One person saw the sign, walked up to me, and said "I think I should do that, myself". The final person (of the positive response crew) was a woman who sat next to me on the train and said "Thank god!! Someone who ain't afraid to say it" after which we had a great conversation and she attempted to give me her number, which I politely declined (I'm 'married' after all). I did, however, note the irony of her statement to her, and popular vernacular became a main thread of our conversation.
Now this is only a small way through the exercise, and I know that as the week wears on, people who ride the train everyday may finally muster the guts to say something, but for the time, it's been relatively peaceful. People see it - I can see they see it. I overheard some people talking about it, but couldn't make out enough content for it to mean anything. I also heard a ~12yo ask his dad "What's an atheist" - the father didn't see my sticker and I didn't hear his response.
As a side note, and as often happens, someone may not contend with the 'statement' directly, but they let it color their conversation. One of the train overseers was one who said "Sorry to hear that", but nothing further. But the conversation we had was colored with implications that I follow a Democrat agenda, or am arrogant, or am overtly liberal (none of which is true in the Platonic sense).
I'll be posting further with any significant updates (and counts of responses), but at this point, I'm not expecting enough response to write much about. I might have to go a state lower in the Union, I suppose.
EDIT: So, a few interesting things have happened since this post. One in particular I'll address as I should have anticipated it a little more carefully and prepared the proper logical arguments to address it.
For one, the sign is getting noticed more. I've had people ask about the sign, but I refuse to talk about it or explain why - that's not the purpose of this. I permit the person to make their comment, whatever it is, and then move on. But if someone wants to discuss the topic or simply asks why I feel the need to do anything (a sort of restatement of what I refuse, but this is at least framed in a way that deserves an answer), I'm game. I had a number of people scream to "take that thing off" - amazing what people will do when it's a drive/walk-by.
The issue I should address is: I considered that many of the discussions that might arise would be intellectual mismatches. At the very least, a better majority of them would be educational mismatches (besides theology, I do everything I can to learn and read anything I get my hands on). But I hadn't considered the sheer volume of mismatches that would be present (by ratio). I also hadn't considered the depth of mismatch. The first question usually asked is "How can you be an atheist?". The simple answer, of course "Because to believe anything, I need evidence. And as there is no evidence for a god, I don't believe in one. All things being equal, I would pose the same question to you but on the flip: how can you believe in god?" 100% of the time, thus far, this threw them completely off. Tossing that question back at them is essentially the fatal blow - and the first - as they've never dealt with it before, or so rarely that they never gave it much consideration outside of the Bible (or whathaveyou). At this point, they start grasping at straws - changing the subject and, essentially, offering various analogues to 'the argument from incredulity'. If only they could apply the same incredulity to talking snakes. And, as usual, there is a disconnect in 'evolution' being a strictly atheist thing. Two men were surprised that the Vatican endorses evolution and three others denied it.
"But atheists believe in evolution - it's the atheist religion, right?"
"No. It's a scientific theory. And atheists don't have a religion...that's the point"
"But atheists get their morality from evolution." (alluding to the 'morality taught by evolution' not that developed by it)
"I certainly hope not - at least not literally."
"But, like, lions kill antelope and lots of animals kill each other, so atheists have to believe killing is okay."
"Not in the least. Lions kill antelope to eat - we kill all manner of plants and animals for the same purpose. Animals can, and do, kill each other. But you're making apples and oranges out of apples and more apples - human beings *ARE* animals."
"So we *SHOULD* be killing each other!"
"I say no, because I respect that this life on earth is all I, and my neighbor, have in this universe. I can't take that from them for no cause. But for the religious, why not kill? God does it!!"
"What? God doesn't kill people!"
"Sorry, sir, but I have to get back to a meeting. You should read the Bible one day, though. God has killed thousands, not including the destruction of entire cities and the flood."
"But those people were evil - god was only killing evil"
"Quite a respect for free will, wouldn't you say?"
"Yeah, I suppose" (confused look)
A lot of the exchanges have been a myriad non-sequitor. I'll post any more significant updates.
UPDATE - 7.16.2010:
So, as the days press on, people are noticing more. Apparently if it's something you see one day, you don't pay much mind. When you see it day after day, it sinks in. Even so, I'm finding out this exercise is less about me or atheism in general.
In the past two days - perhaps three - I've had no less than three people approach me with approximately this story (sort of a composite of the three I remember):
HIM/HER: I've seen you wearing that and was compelled to say something, but I didn't know what.
ME (apprehensive): Okay.
HIM/HER: What I came up with was "Thank you".
ME (still skeptical): You're welcome? But for what?
HIM/HER: My (spouse) thinks I'm crazy.
ME (curious): Why?
HIM/HER: cuz I don't believe it anymore. My (spouse) is (christian|muslim), but I've given up on it, and they think I'm nuts.
ME: How do you feel about that?
HIM/HER: I don't know, but I know how I feel about what you're doing.
ME (apprehensive again): How's that?
HIM/HER: Glad to know someone will tell me I'm not the only one.
And another, who's 1st generation MexAmerican with a very Catholic mother but she is agnostic, and who's boyfriend is 1/2 Polish, 1/2 Philipino, raised Jewish (from the father), but is atheist, who is glad someone else could explain some things so she can relate to her boyfriend better. She'd just never heard much of the argument, and her boyfriend keeps it inside for "fear of reprisal" - his words through her.
I don't mean to abandon all humility, but what I thought was going to be a string of shouting matches for me to partake in (which can be fun, sometimes...) has become the rally flag I hoped it would be. I don't know if anyone is taking inspiration from it, but many people appear comforted or assured.
A couple notes
* the best time to get responses appears to be ~4:30pm - people are on their way to the train but technically have an hour or so before their family will count them as 'late'.
* a friend of mine at work gave me a great idea, which I convinced him to half-fund: write up one of the stickers, Xerox it into a grid, cut and laminate and attach some simple (cheap-o) clips and give them out on the street. People may not have time to talk to me, or may assume I'm just a student (I look young, dress in jeans and a t-shirt for work, and am in love with my messenger bag [FYI - Fossil: affordable (mine was $150), lifetime warranty, good-looking, high-quality]), but many folks just might tack on an 'atheist' or 'agnostic' sticker, perhaps some just 'non-theist' ones for a day themselves.
* I had someone ask "what is it, like atheist pride week?", to which I explained the 15-count package I bought, but I have a joke answer, too. "I'll stop wearing it when everyone at work who is comes in with one, too" - didn't go over too well, as the person in question is from Southern Illinois (which if it isn't, might as well be part of the Bible-belt).
* We've already had one female QA engineer (and quite good at it) leave because her husband didn't like her working in the same room with a man who isn't her husband or family member. So now she doesn't have a career.
* another employee is married to a middle-eastern man so he can gain citizenship in canada, but he objects to his brother marrying some girl for love instead of by arrangement.